Having broken the mould for Beijing rock bands at the end of the ’90s, Hang on the Box are back, albeit with a vastly different line-up. Time Out talks to frontwoman Wang Yue about why she wants to keep HOTB going
In the nascent Chinese rock scene of the late 1990s, for many Hang on the Box were the it-band. Declaring themselves China’s first all-female punk band (and regularly trashing ‘China’s first all-female rock band’ Cobra along the way), the trio of Beijing bad asses – Wang Yue, Yilina and Shenggy, later joined by Li Yan Fan – were renowned for live shows that were as much about the message as the music.
Their brash, politically-charged lyrics about sensuality and femininity were delivered in broken English over (sometimes chaotic) guitar-driven rhythms that oozed attitude. Six months after they first burst onto the scene with a show that they’ve since admitted was embarrassingly poor from a musical standpoint (and was met with boos in some quarters), they made the cover of Newsweek.
But such a meteoric rise led to rumblings among other Beijing bands at the time about unwarranted attention and Hang on the Box became increasingly ostracised, struggling to get regular gigs at home even as their stock continued to rise abroad. The band released a string of albums in the early 2000s, but eventually fizzled out following 2007’s No More Nice Girls.
Yet Wang (aka Gia) appears to harbour an acute sense of promise unfulfilled. The one-time spiky frontwoman has continued to put together bands under the Hang on the Box banner in the years since the original line-up’s demise, even as she’s moved through a patchy, bossa nova-inspired solo career and morphed into a sleek designer and fashion house collaborator.
Despite admitting to feeling ‘saturated’ and in need of a break when the band initially splintered, Wang says that she ‘never really stopped wanting to put Hang on the Box back together again. I feel like it’s fate; this wasn’t something I decided, this was something decided by god.’ She’s joking with this last comment, but only just; the idea that Hang on the Box’s legacy at home is not as strong as they deserve clearly still stings. In an interview with Time Out Beijing last year
, she was brought to tears by the suggestion she had plenty to be proud of. ‘I’m sorry,’ she blubbed. ‘I feel touched because only a Westerner would say I’ve achieved a lot. No Chinese acknowledge the value of my music.’
Perhaps aware that bursting into tears over what other people think of you isn’t the best way to embellish your punk credentials, Wang projects a textbook devil may care attitude when we talk to her ahead of what’s being billed as Hang on the Box’s first Shanghai show in 15 years. (Though of course that comes with the significant caveat that Wang is the only original member appearing this time around.)
‘Recognition has no real bearing on why I’m making music or continuing my band. I feel like HOTB won’t be the hottest thing ever, but I don’t really have that expectation; for us we just want to make new music and continue to rehearse and share, really share,’ she says. ‘Having Chinese people recognise your work isn’t necessarily a good thing or the goal of what you’re doing, that was never our aim. Maybe we cared a bit about this before, but right now all I care about is keeping in line with the mind of God.’
She also insists that she’s not attempting to recover former glories and instead is focused on cultivating a new audience. ‘You don’t make these things because you think they’ll sell well,’ she says before proving that the years haven’t blunted her way with words. ‘If you’ve got a shit in your arse it has to come out, that’s all.’
The band are writing new songs – ‘our sound these days isn’t as noisy, it’s more indie post-rock and future rock, a bit quieter, or rather a bit more beautiful,’ she says, ‘but every HOTB album had a different sound anyway’ – yet they still play the old ‘hits’ too. So does she allow the new members of the band to reinterpret Hang on the Box’s classic songs? ‘To be honest, I don’t really encourage them either way. Maybe it’s a habit, but usually when they add some new elements I’ll feel like there’s something seriously wrong – where we add new elements is more with the new songs.’
That Wang continues to play original HOTB material means that Yuyintang may be witness to an airing of ‘Shanghai’, an early track of the band’s with lyrics such as ‘What is Shanghai? Rich white cock and hungry yellow chick’ and ‘Shanghai is a beautiful city, also is a stupid city.’
Naturally, we feel obliged to ask her about this particular ditty. ‘This song is like The World of Suzie Wong; in the ’90s Shanghai girls had this kind of reputation. As a young punk, you kind of hate Shanghai, especially those girls who sell themselves like a product,’ she says. ‘The lyrics also say “Shanghai is international, Shanghai is A1” – these days, don’t Chinese and foreigners in Shanghai say the same thing?’